TAIPEI – With his blue Stetson and thick gray jacket, Lai Pei-yuan looks like a modern-day cowboy. But rather than raising cattle, he grows trees.
The 57-year-old Taiwanese entrepreneur made his fortune in transportation and property, but his real mission in life is to reinstate at least some of the forests that once covered most of the island.
“It was just a simple idea I had,” Lai said during an interview on a hillside near Taichung, the city in central Taiwan where he was born. “If I was to safeguard Taiwan, I would have to plant trees.”
For the past three decades, Lai has bought and planted thousands of trees every year, often with his own hands.
Today his efforts can be seen in the form of 130 hectares of mountainsides near Taichung covered with 270,000 deep-rooted trees, representing indigenous species such as Taiwan incense cedar and a kind of laurel.
“He’s a legendary person,” President Ma Ying-jeou said during a recent visit to Taichung, when he met and sipped coffee with Lai. “No one else in Taiwan has planted so many trees.”
It is an endeavor that has cost him hundreds of millions of New Taiwan dollars, but it has helped him achieve fame as “King of the Trees.”
He says he was inspired by seeing how rapid industrialization laid waste to Taiwan in the postwar era of superhigh growth.
“Many, many trees growing in the mountains were cut down and exported,” Lai said.
It began under Japanese colonial rule from 1895 to 1945, when ancient trees were cut down in the name of progress, a process that continued until the closing years of the 20th century.
Only in 1989 did Taiwanese authorities ban the logging of primeval forests, but by that time it was almost too late.
The results were devastating. In the course of the 20th century, forest coverage fell from 90 percent to 55 percent, according to one government survey.
Lai nevertheless saw it as an opportunity to build something that will leave a legacy for posterity.
“I had seen how companies prospered and declined. I felt I wanted to do something that could last for generations to come,” he said.
Lai began his crusade for the trees when he was about 30, setting out every morning to plant trees on plots of land that he owned. Often his family would only see him after sunset. His children were puzzled.
“When my brother and I were young, we had no idea what Dad was doing. Our impression was that he was on the mountains all the time,” said his elder son, Lai Chien-chung.
Today Chien-chung sells coffee beans grown in his father’s forests, under the brand name Coffee & Tree. He also opened his first coffee shop in downtown Taichung last year.
Around 95 percent of the profits from the coffee sales have been used to finance the maintenance of the forests and the planting of trees, Chien-chung said.
To ensure sustainable management of his forests, Lai pledges no deforestation and land selloff. Nor will he give the forests to his family after his death, he said. They will instead be managed by a nonprofit foundation set up by Lai.
Meanwhile, he can take pleasure in the fact that others are following in his footsteps.
Since 2008, Taiwanese individuals, companies and government bodies have jointly planted more than 23,000 hectares of trees, according to the Forestry Bureau as part of Ma’s iTaiwan projects launched in 2009.